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CHM hosts talk on leather community
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times

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The Chicago History Museum (CHM) hosted a panel discussion titled "Chicago in Leather," on the city's leather community. The event took place Jan. 19.

Jennifer Tyburczy—a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University who researches sex museums and wrote her dissertation on the subject at Northwestern University—introduced the panelists. She spoke briefly of the role of leather in the gay community and to the significance of having such a conversation at the CHM: "It is safe to say that all of us are making history by being here tonight."

Tyburczy also noted that the panel would highlight the much-neglected history of Chicago's place in the history of leather "as a valuable cultural identity." She gave a brief history of the leather community in the United States, which came out of World War II, when leather men exchanged insignia of military life.

The leather community's symbolic and material connections to the military was further highlighted when Joey McDonald, a member of the International Mr. Leather (IML) executive committee, described his entrance into it. He described being stationed in Germany in 1977 and finding himself at a leather bar with friends while on a brief leave. Attracted to two of the men there, he went home with them and returned to his post after an intense but revealing few days: "They opened my eyes and opened my world. My eyes were glowing, and so was my ass." In 1979, he came to Chicago and to the then-famous Gold Coast bar, which was hosting the very first IML weekend.

Similarly, Craig (not all participants gave their last names)—a member of Chicago's well-known Hellfire Club, a private gay men's club devoted to the exploration of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism)—spoke about his arrival in Chicago from New York in 1991. He emphasized that Hellfire was a sex club, not a motorcycle or social club, but that it was also committed to providing education about BDSM within the larger community. More than 40 years after its founding, Hellfire now flourishes, according to Craig, because of the strong ties of "brotherhood" among its members.

Searah Deysach—the owner of Early to Bed, a sex-toy store that prides itself on being especially woman-friendly—was among the panelists. She jokingly pointed to her lack of leather clothing in comparison to the others (all of whom sported leather vests) as evidence that she was more of an outsider to the community but definitely a supporter.

Deysach said she saw the store as a place that could help "open the gateway," especially through its workshops and presentations, for those who wanted to know more about the leather community. It provided an environment where they would feel safe and comfortable asking questions that they might feel awkward about elsewhere.

Angie, another participant, addressed the issue of the place of women in the leather community. According to her, while there are still relatively few places like Hellfire for women in Chicago, the opportunities for participating in activities outside the home are steadily increasing.

Transgender individual Riley Johnson, like Angie, is a bootblack. He spoke of the occasional impediments to trans people in the leather community, but said that overall it was open and welcoming. At IML, for instance, there are no requirements that people out themselves as trans, and entrance is based solely on the gender marker on one's identity card. However, as Johnson pointed out, it can still be a problem for people in states where it is difficult or impossible to change gender-identity markers.

Audience questions at the end ranged from the possible overlap between motorcycle groups and leather fetish groups to the role of categories like top and bottom. Overall, the consensus seemed to be that the leather community in Chicago was thriving and growing, and that people were far open about celebrating being a part of it. McDonald incited much laughter in the audience when he related what he once said to a friend: "Remember when you used to come to town to see the local color? And now you are the local color?"

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